Friday, February 02, 2007

Serious crunch

I've finally succumbed to the Fuschia Dunlop movement. After hearing uniform praise for her books, and upon the occasion of the publication of her latest (Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, which treats Hunanese cooking), I finally bought both RCC and her first book, Land of Plenty (that takes on Sichuanese cooking).

(I apologize for the length of that last sentence. The offender will be dealt with.)

Always one to start at the beginning and work through to the end, I began reading Land of Plenty. As I read, I recognized one of the field marks of a new favorite cookbook: I found myself thinking, "That sounds good," or "That wouldn't be hard to make," as I paged through the recipes. The first one that got the nod was "Pork Slices with Black Cloud Ear Fungus." This is a stir-fry combining marinated pork, cloud ears, celery and chiles.

The marinade worried me, because the version that uses cornstarch calls for six teaspoons of cornstarch along with two tablespoons of water and a teaspoon of Shao Xing rice wine. (There's also a half teaspoon of salt involved.) This meant that the marinade was more viscous than liquid, but I dutifully lathered it over the pork slices as instructed. I didn't have Sichuan pickled chiles on hand, so I substituted some of the serrano chile pepper puree from Suzie Hot Sauce. I also substituted homemade turkey stock for the suggested chicken stock.

I needn't have worried, because the stir-fry cooked up just fine. The pork gets stir-fried first in a third of a cup of peanut oil, then the excess oil is poured off to leave about two or three tablespoons, the usual amount for a stir-fry. Then add chopped ginger, chopped garlic and the Sichuan pickled chiles (if you have them) and stir-fry briefly until they become aromatic. Now the sliced scallions, chopped cloud ears and sliced celery go in, also to be stir-fried briefly. The final step is the addition of the sauce which is based on a quarter of a cup of chicken stock, with a quarter of a teaspoon salt, an eighth of a teaspoon ground pepper and one and an eighth teaspoons of cornstarch (three-quarters of a teaspoon of potato flour, which Dunlop frequently uses in her recipes). Heat through and serve at once.

Cloud ears are essentially flavorless, but they have a very crunchy texture, and their black color can add a dramatic accent to a plate. When combined with the sliced celery, also a crunchy ingredient, it gives this stir-fry a very crunchy quality indeed. This contrasts with the moist morsels of pork. The savory sauce just ties the whole thing together. I was very impressed with the ease with which this dish cooked up, and I also enjoyed a new combination of ingredients for me. If this is any indication, I'm going to enjoy cooking from this cookbook quite a bit.